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Movie Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Six years after Tim Burton adapted Lewis Carroll’s children’s tale of Alice in Wonderland, the Walt Disney Studios brings Burton back as a producer, teamed again with screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Maleficent) and the same cast, in a sequel directed by James Bobin. The result, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is entertaining if underwhelming.

Alice_Through_the_Looking_Glass_(film)_posterSeen in IMAX 3D at Comcast’s Universal CityWalk in Universal City, California, the movie pops off the screen with wildly colorful characters, settings and situations. When plot points converge and gain steam, however, things go limp. Lead actress Mia Wasikowska as Alice has less to do because the character goes from serious young woman with something to learn to heroic captain of her own ship (in Victorian England), which modernizes yet mixes the story’s context and raises the bar for whatever lesson Alice has yet to learn. The lesson, it turns out, is acting within limits.

This idea has marvelous potential, which is partially redeemed in the main conflict involving Time (absurdist Sacha Baron Cohen of Hugo and Borat), a character that controls life and death in Underland with a source called the Chronosphere. Alice, facing another difficult life decision and led back to Underland through the “looking glass” by the late Alan Rickman-voiced blue butterfly, encounters Time, seizes the metallic Chronosphere and darts into a new adventure. Alice seeks to revive the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), known here as Hatter, by going back in time to right presumed wrongs.

Instead, Alice discovers other wrongs. The same characters, including Anne Hathaway’s White Queen and Helena Bonham Carter’s exiled Red Queen, appear throughout Alice Through the Looking Glass. Once again, Carter (Cinderella, Suffragette), in cahoots with Time, is the big-headed villainess.

If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The film skates on visual appeal with Jules Verne and Gothic influences and the promise of unbundling character backstories contained in Woolverton’s script. At best, Depp’s Mad Hatter refusing to be like his father (Rhys Ifans) and Wasikowska’s Alice refusing to be like her mother echoes nicely as both characters discover similarity and difference and strive to remain friends in a test of unresolved conflicts.

Problems arise with the climax.

With Underland in danger of crumbling, and symbolic scenes of escaping a madhouse, Alice Through the Looking Glass employs an already well-worn tread of revising a villain’s past (i.e., Maleficent) to explain and rationalize certain behavior. Good is bad and bad is good, or some such approximation and, here, none of it is reasonably addressed or resolved. Indeed, some of it contradicts what happened in Alice in Wonderland. Worse, in a movie for children, Woolverton leaves multiple loose ethical ends and ties Alice, once a warrior challenging tradition for her own sake, down to an act of altruism, making her a conformist after all. Other notions—the Mad Hatter’s intuition, for instance—are tossed in at the last minute.

The moving pictures of Time’s clock parts, such as the Seconds and Minutes, and costumes, including Alice’s embroidered Chinese getup for the party, by Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Into the Woods) are brilliant and Alice Through the Looking Glass is at times stunning to look at and behold. A closer look reveals its flaws.
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Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

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McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.

Movie Review: Forty Guns (1957)

The raw, lusty, raging Forty Guns, written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller, cuts across genres and landscapes to forge its own way. Like a strong cowboy, tough pioneer or good Western, Forty Guns, screened at LA’s Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park with an introduction by Western movie scholar Andrew Patrick Nelson, comes out fast and hard and never lets up except where it ought to go easy.

Beginning with a great open range shot, finding a lone wagon in the foreground and letting loose a stampeding roar of hooves that envelops the wagon and its driver (Barry Sullivan), the audience sooner than later learns a lot about the wagonmaster, the land and the stampede.

The land is weathered and dusty and unforgiving—so is the rampage, which is also long and purposeful—and the wagon man is undaunted. In an outstanding single shot which foretells the showdown to come, the long line of galloping horsemen splits into two lines encircling the chipped, rickety wagon. As they do, the man holds on to the reins while his horses go into a wild rage as the stampede descends and he doesn’t let go. Sure and steady of hand and manner, he is the man to watch.

As the dust settles and the riders go off, fading the heart-racing opening sequence into a slow, distant thunder, and the opening credits roll with Harry Sukman’s thrilling musical score, the camera pans past forty gun-toting cowboys toward a lone figure in the lead—why, it’s a woman!—and there goes indomitable Barbara Stanwyck.

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Then comes the town setup, with every detail factoring into the intricately mythical plot, from a child jumping rope and a stagecoach arrival to a lonely, beautiful woman making eyes at a new stranger in town. Part of the appeal of this raunchy 1957 movie is its cross-generational, cross-cultural contrasts and it’s nothing if it’s not about women’s liberated sexuality, the West and the man-woman relationship. Fuller introduces and embeds themes of aging, too, and other interesting subtexts.

But he leaves exposition to a balladeer (Jidge Carroll) who sings of a “High Ridin’ Woman” with a whip, one of several cheeky moments, and how she’s full of life and full of fire. This would be Stanwyck’s pre-Big Valley rancher and property owner, a matriarch lording over the area with her 40 dragoons. The woman’s name is Jessica Drummond—the balladeer calls her “the boss of Cochise County”—and when she’s not ordering men around and inspiring songwriters to croon at the bathhouse, she’s looking after her possessions and rationalizing the bullying actions of her much-younger brother Brockie (John Ericson). That brings Jessica Drummond into conflict with the wagonmaster she nearly ran down but didn’t.

His name is Griff Bonnell (Sullivan). He’s an avenger who’s come to town to exact justice with a criminal that works for Drummond, which he does, and he has his own score to settle. In scene after scene, the tension builds as Griff and Jessica stake their claims. Griff walks slowly by the town courthouse before coming up on Brockie and putting him in his place, underscoring that he aims to restore order and assert the role of a lawman in a wild country ruled by a hard, lonely woman. Brockie and his bunch are like hippies, Beatniks and hooligans, though, shooting up the town, destroying property and snuffing out lives. Griff has his helpers, two strong sons named Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), but he has long-range plans, too, including guiding his youngest son to a more civilized, businesslike life.

That won’t be easy with a wild woman on the loose, her unruly younger brother and a roost of half-men who let themselves be run into submission by Jessica Drummond. The sex kitten daughter of the gunsmith stirs, making moves toward Griff’s son Wes, the townfolk come to terms, noticing that Griff’s getting on in years and striding “a little slower” than usual and the Old traditionalist West comes into conflict with the New modern West with California as the ultimate ideal. With drunken, irrational Brockie uprooting the town while people decide who they are and what future they want, and Dean Jagger’s exasperated, cowardly sheriff—the quintessential moderate in the middle of the road—struggling to keep up with Griff, Forty Guns cooks up a mighty grand finale.

“Hyaaahhh!!” yells Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond, riding across her range and finding herself drawn to Griff Bonnell because he openly mocks her and doesn’t back down and if these two sound like Roark and Dominique rustling up romance near the stone quarry in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that sounds about right. After he rejects her, she serves him whiskey, he downs it and she handles his gun like a pro. But Griff lets her know who’ll come out on top after she tells him she’s sure of herself.

“I’m sure you’re sure,” he says, and with that he’s done with her—for now. By the time the famous twister scene plays, with Jessica riding alone in the storm and being dragged by her horse and Griff riding alone in his wagon, the chords of “High Ridin’ Woman” come up and it’s not hard to see where these two ought to be.

Later, she tells him, “I need a strong man to carry out my orders.” His reply—”…and a weak man to take them”—once again foretells the outcome in a way, though not before tragedy strikes and the whole town, including rotten Brockie and his counterpart, boyish Chico, cashes in on their choices and calls the final contest between anarchy and civilization. With the Greek chorus-style balladeer chiming in on forgiveness, death and what it cost to settle the West—with California standing in for the American Dream—the high ridin’ woman, softly in reprise on piano, gets what she’s got coming with humor, pathos and a lot to say about family, legacy, sex and love, womanhood and manhood and, yes, how the West was won.

“I never knew how to like anybody until I learned how to love,” someone says when it matters. For all its lust, raunch and fun, Forty Guns fires up and shows everybody how it’s done.

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Controlled by Frank Sinatra, directed by John Frankenheimer, adapted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, shot in black and white and released before President Kennedy‘s 1963 assassination, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate‘s reputation is probably better than the movie deserves.

Yet as a piece of cinematic paranoia, the assassination-themed picture strangely and certainly applies to its time and continues to be relevant as a kind of warning against a subversive foreign takeover for dictatorship of the United States of America.

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The story begins in North Korea. The year is 1952. Sound and image converge with whirling helicopters and the American motto in Latin, E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) and quickly, clearly, the audience sees that something is terribly wrong with the world in the picture. Indeed, pictures of mass murdering Communists Mao Tse-Tung and Josef Stalin appear with U.S. Army soldiers intermixed with scenes from a ladies’ gardening club. Thus the notion of Americans being brainwashed—”a new American term”, according to one of the Communist perpetrators—sets the movie’s plot, characters and action into play.

The Manchurian Candidate lingers in this unsettling Communist torture chamber, interspersed with the garden club from the soldiers’ warped perspectives, depicting an act that captures the horrifying potential and power of the operation. Besides signalling the diabolical plot to come, this setup allows Frankenheimer to indulge the movie in a particular brand of paranoia that indicts the entire country because, as will become evident, the culprit in this conspiracy theory in action is really the American people.

From Sinatra’s Army Major Marco, who blindly salutes early in the film, the U.S. Army, politicians and the media to a black Army corporal (James Edwards), principled U.S. senator (John McGiver) and the senator’s daughter (Leslie Parrish), everyone is either plagued or near powerless to conjure, question or stop the scheme to turn the nation into a Communist puppet state. In this sense, the movie’s rather bleak, heavy and empty.

Every character is flawed, damaged or out to end America. No one is entirely sympathetic. There are no heroes here.

The person most contaminated by the enemy is also the person most likely to co-opt an unhappy ending, presumed Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, BUtterfield 8), who was programmed by the Reds to do the dirty deed. Some might claim that Sinatra’s Marco also acts admirably and heroically and he does, to a certain extent, though he, too, is ultimately powerless. Marco is the film’s detective, having vague, nagging nightmares about captivity, doubting the unit’s blind allegiance to the war hero Raymond Shaw and discovering what triggers the secret agent’s sinister acts.

Major Marco has to contend with a love interest (Janet Leigh, Psycho), whom some see as an innocent loner on the train and I see as an apparently unresolved possible Communist agent, or at least a character that could go either way. Any woman so quick to ditch her fiance for Sinatra’s disoriented Army major—and with such practiced recitation of her address and number—is suspect in this movie.

Powerlessness and paranoia are The Manchurian Candidate‘s themes—Americans are both helpless to combat evil and too paranoid to identify what evil must be stopped—and certainly the Korean War, the first of many American post-World War 2 wars to neither be acknowledged as war and declared nor won, is the perfect backdrop for a seamless, insidious spread of totalitarianism in our midst. This spread emanates from recognizably monstrous Soviet, Red Chinese and North Korean agents, such as houseboy Chunjin (Henry Silva) and an evil doctor (Khigh Dhiegh, who went on to play the Communist-friendly Wo Fat villain in Hawaii Five-O), with the doctor pronouncing the movie’s moral theme with glee, calling out what he refers to as the “uniquely American symptoms [unearned] guilt and [irrational] fear”. By now everyone knows that the real source of the Communist threat in America is dim-witted anti-Communist Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), apparently patterned after Republican Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, propped up by his nagging wife, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), war hero Raymond Shaw’s mother, a role originally intended for Lucille Ball.

Much has been made of Iselin’s resemblance to McCarthy and it’s a legitimate point. But McCarthy’s flaws never included collaborating with the enemy and his basic theory that Communists had infiltrated the highest levels of state and industry was proven true. So, while The Manchurian Candidate delivers on the left’s bogeyman, McCarthy, it also validates the right’s more salient contention that American ignorance, evasion and appeasement of Communists all but opened the door wide open to a Communist plot to take over the country; Sen. Iselin’s character merely projects what’s actually happening on the film’s terms.

In skewed angles, in black and white, with an incestuous psychological underpinning that forecasts the rise of both the shrill, domineering female and the authoritarian who’s a “clown and buffoon”, with decent soldiers and statesmen taken in by the Reds, always one step behind and never acting to defend the republic in time, The Manchurian Candidate spirals to a tense, exciting conclusion.

By the time end credits roll, the good has been breached beyond repair and one medal of honor may yet be earned. All of this sounds more important than it is in the movie’s context strictly due to what tragedies, wars and despair coincided with this October 1962 United Artists release, which screened during the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (see notes below) with co-star Angela Lansbury. This is because the movie never fully identifies or names, let alone resolves, its cryptic conflict of an American republic gone bad or struck dumb, really dim, through neglect or brainwashing. The cast is excellent, so far as the characters allow, and the creepy feeling pervades.

And, while this may never have been Condon’s or anyone else’s original purpose, the 50 years since The Manchurian Candidate (don’t bother with the awful anti-capitalist remake in 2004) was made only affirm that the worst of this movie’s outcomes is coming true. As one character threatens in the movie’s most prophetic line, eerily happening here and now with the rise to power of Donald Trump: “[It’s easy to] rally a nation of TV viewers into hysteria that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”


At an exclusive, pre-screening Hollywood interview sponsored by Turner Classic Movies for its TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the actress who plays Raymond Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Johnny Iselin, Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, Sweeney Todd, Murder, She Wrote, All Fall Down, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Shootdown, Beauty and the Beast, The Picture of Dorian Gray) in The Manchurian Candidate talked about the movie, her life and career.

LansburyTCMFF2016In a conversation with Alec Baldwin for TCM, Ms. Lansbury, who glided out into the sold out theater looking tall, sensible and grand, started by saying that she’d read Richard Condon’s novel, which she described as “very serious” in preparation for the shocking role of the incestuously villainous mother of the Manchurian candidate’s would-be assassin. Declining to take full credit for the Oscar-nominated performance, Angela Lansbury added that she thinks the writer gives the character its essential meaning. Hosts and moderators often fawn over the movie or performance that’s about to be shown and this showing of The Manchurian Candidate was no exception. However, to her credit, 91-year-old Angela Lansbury refused to go along; when Baldwin prompted her for a moment of eternal and overdone praise for the film, she correctly pegged the movie as “a unique piece of work.” Thanks to her chilling performance, it is.

Speaking of her movie career, which included roles in The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland, Frank Capra’s State of the Union with Tracy and Hepburn and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, she sounded somewhat embittered when she lamented that “directors all saw me in a different way” and kept casting her as various types of characters in pictures, which grew tiresome, so she stopped making as many movies and went to work on stage in productions such as Sweeney Todd and on television as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in the CBS hit Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996).

Movie Review: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

With restoration funded for the UCLA Film and Television Archive by a government grant to the American Film Institute and privately by Republic Pictures and the David and Lucile Packard Program, the 117-minute I’ve Always Loved You recently screened at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The 1946 picture is filled with romantic notions, scenes and music and it’s as melodramatic as any other mid-Forties romance.

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But something is different about this movie. Based on a Borden Chase (Red River) short story titled “Concerto” about Chase’s pianist wife (and their daughter, the audience learned before the screening, later danced with Fred Astaire), I’ve Always Loved You features two stunning performances of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto—both played as a duel between a female pianist and her male conductor—by artists entangled in a toxic affair. This rarely seen classic was directed for Republic Pictures, a small studio known for low-budget Westerns, by Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm, A Farewell to Arms, Stage Door Canteen). The $2 million budget bought Technicolor for the first time and Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano.

A fresh-faced young pianist named Myra (Catherine McLeod) falls in love with an alpha male maestro (Philip Dorn) named Leopold Goronoff, who insists that music at its finest is for men to play and women to experience. This does not dissuade Myra either from pursuing her passion for learning music from the master—nor him from tutoring and hiring the young farm woman—or prevent Myra from falling for the handsome but eccentric conductor. Myra knows her talent but utters “yes, master” over and again in order to gain new knowledge and practice, childlike in her confidence that he will see her for the perfect pupil—and devotee—she is. Theirs is a student-teacher storm warning.

This is not completely lost on the strong, wholesome farm hand (William Carter) back home who has a thing for Myra and has no problem expressing himself. Borzage contrasts these two men as counterparts caught between Myra’s escalating unease with her emerging musical skill, her unrequited love for Goronoff and the unrequited affection of the man who runs her father’s idyllic Pennsylvania farm. Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth, Waterloo Bridge, The Mortal Storm) stars as the maestro’s rational, knowing grandmother in one of her last roles before she died.

As Myra, McLeod captures the character’s worship, intensity and confusion, making her most rash or shocking choices more plausible, which is pivotal in a picture this loaded with sweeps, turns and gloriously romantic music. Dorn, too, makes his neurotically masculine master appealing enough to see why women swoon over him. Ouspenskaya, too, as a grandmother tenderly taking to Myra and calling her “Butterball”, and Carter as the simple outdoorsman pining for a woman musician, are convincing. Add the mad, swirling sense of something ominous that seeps into the concerts and I’ve Always Loved You culminates at Carnegie Hall.

Though by the time this picture was released, both The Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter had already used Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, here performing music is integral to plot and character development and achieve an unusually engaging effect. I’ve Always Loved You manages under Borzage’s direction to be both highly romantic and conflicted without being totally shameless in execution and Rubinstein’s piano playing, however flawed its depiction (so I’m informed by someone who knows about these things), furiously plays into a rewarding final deliverance.